Friday, 28 October 2011

Contagion (2011):

It's a bad day to be a rhesus monkey.
– Jude Law, as Alan Krumwiede.

A woman arrives back in America, returning home from a business trip to Hong Kong. She talks to her husband on a cell phone, clearly running a fever and coughing as she speaks. Others who were present at the same restaurant and casino also travel to their different destinations and unwittingly infect those along the way.
What at first seems like an outbreak of a flu virus, quickly escalates into a world-wide pandemic of a new, virulent and deadly disease.
Experts at the United States Center for Disease Control race to first discover exactly what the disease is before they can then develop a cure, as society crumbles and some struggling to survive take to looting and murder.
This is a vastly superior movie to others in the disease outbreak and mass-panic-ensues genre. Far better than the trashy Outbreak (1995), and reminiscent in places of The Andromeda Strain – a classic from 1970 that remains chilling in its clinical realism, Contagion is another extremely well-made and bleakly realistic thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, who also made Solaris, The Informant!, Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic and Erin Brockovich … among many others.
The main cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, Chin Han, all give restrained and excellent performances. There is tension, emotion, drama, death, and tragedy on show, but it is acted sincerely without plunging into melodrama and over-sentimentality. The main plot and sub-plots of the different characters and situations are intricately weaved without leaving any loose plot threads.
After the end credits have rolled, the viewer is left with the feeling as if they have sat through a documentary retold as a drama, making what they have just seen all the more frighteningly credible … which it is!
I watched this movie in a packed cinema auditorium, filled with popcorn-munchers, drink-slurpers, seat-shufflers, all of which I could tolerate during the running time. But what got me during this particular screening was my heightened awareness to those who were coughing … !!!
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself thinking twice before you plunge your hand into that free bowl of peanuts at the side of the bar, or getting OCD about washing your hands after this one!
To those who may experience coughs, shivers, sweats, sneezes, et al … please … please … PLEASE!!! … cover your mouth and nose and wash your hands! How hard can it be? Better still, stay inside, wrap up warm, drink plenty of water, and stay put until you’re well again.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Inception (2010):

The majority of movies just come and go. We watch many of them and we’ve forgotten about them less than thirty minutes after the end credits have rolled.
Others, like Inception, are a true cinematic experience. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is a brilliant, action-packed head-trip sci-fi adventure. The special effects, performances and soundtrack all come together seamlessly to give a feast for the eyes and ears.
The best way to watch any movie for the first time is not to know anything about it. That way you are as open to the mystery the story offers as the characters within. This is particularly true of past movies like: Shutter Island (2010), Moon (2009), Silent Hill (2006), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Vanilla Sky (2001), Memento (2000) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990).
On a trivia note, the song that is repeated in the story is Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I Regret Nothing), written and composed in 1956 by Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire. It was sang most famously by Édith Piaf. Marion Cotillard played Édith Piaf in the 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose (Life in Pink).
When reviewing movies I have often given some details of the plot, but this time all I’m going to say is watch it. The same goes with many of the best movies that make going to a cinema such a special event. Pay your money at the box office … sit down in front of the big screen … take a leap of faith … dare to dream … and then go a step further … dare to dream within a dream. It's one of the main reasons cinema was invented.

War of the Worlds (2005):

This is Steven Spielberg doing what he does best: the action blockbuster.

What makes Spielberg’s movies stand out from the usual predictable dross is the attention to detail, and the high quality of the performances and script.

Against the backdrop of an alien invasion we see a dysfunctional family finally pull together and work out their differences in the face of adversity.
Almost all of us have a favourite book from our childhood. Mine is The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. I loved Jeff Wayne’s version on double-album vinyl (now audio CD), liked the 1953 movie adaptation, even though the tripods became flying machines and there were many important book plot points missing from the simplified movie script. A gem of a movie is The Night That Panicked America (1975), Joseph Sargent’s TV movie, based on the true story of Orson Welles’ live radio broadcast, on October 30, 1938.

Welles recreated the story of War of the Worlds so convincingly that many believed the martians had indeed landed, resulting in a nationwide panic.

Welles is brilliantly played by Paul Shenar. To date this movie has been overlooked for a DVD release, to the chagrin of many fans.

Spielberg’s adaptation has excellent performances from all the cast: Tom Cruise as dock worker, Ray Ferrier, an “everyman” struggling to keep strained relations with his ex-wife Mary Anne (Miranda Otto), his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Tim Robbins plays Harlan Ogilvy, a deranged survivalist who gives Ray and Rachel shelter in his basement.
There are also notable cameos by Lisa Ann Walter, as Cheryl, and Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, as the grandparents who appear briefly at end of the movie and were both the stars of the 1953 movie.

Despite the story being updated, it’s still a more faithful adaptation of the book, including in this version the “red weed”, a fast-growing organism the Martians let loose to spread across the surface of the earth, fertilized by human blood, in order to make the surface of our world resemble their own planet.

Just as many sci-fi stories, particularly of the 1950’s, were symbolic of the paranoia of Communism, in this movie there are visual and spoken references to 9/11 and our fears of terrorism. In the middle of a bright, seemingly-ordinary day, the world is changed forever by an attack that has come with no warning and has devastating results. Victims are reduced to dust, incinerated by the Martian’s “heat ray”.

The atmosphere is suitably ominous throughout and some of the images, like the initial attack, seem to strike from nowhere, particularly the scenes in which dead bodies float by on the lake and a runaway train thunders by with every carriage ablaze.
This is a more superior and intelligent modern sci-fi movie than many that have come and gone over recent years, with superb special effects, and a story that concentrates more on the dynamic of human relationships.
There are some nice touches: the dockside crane that Ray operates at his job is remarkably similar to the tripods; the earth and its micro-organisms defeat the Martians after mankind has been defeated, pushing out the alien invaders in much the same way that Rachel informs Ray that her hand will push out the splinter and, as Ogilvy points out: “Occupations always fail.”

Also recommended:
The Day That Panicked America The H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds Scandal (2005), a documentary covering Orson Welles radio broadcast and its aftermath. Included with the DVD is a CD with the original audio broadcast.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Bug (2006):

Seems all we ever talk about is bugs. But I guess I’d rather talk with you about bugs than nothing with nobody.

– Ashley Judd, as Aggy, In Bug (2006).

Horror that deals with the psychological breakdown of the mind is more cutting than any of the creature-features simply because mental illness is real and it can happen to any of us. Like the paranoia and bugs that are the themes of this story, mental illness can be insidious; it can creep up on us slowly and eat away at our reason and sense of reality.
Bug, based on Tracy Letts’ play (who also wrote the screenplay) and directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), is a powerful and stylish horror that improves with each viewing. The cast give perfect performances and the tension builds from a relaxed opening to a nightmare climax.
Ashley Judd plays Aggy, a waitress leading a lonely existence in a rundown Oklahoma motel room. She’s also a cocaine addict, plagued by a ringing telephone, and her violent ex-con ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Conick Jr.), while grieving over the abduction of her six-year-old son.
Desperate for love and companionship, Aggy latches on to Peter (Michael Shannon), a nervous drifter who confides in her that he’s on the run from the army after they had experimented on him by implanting hybrid bugs into his body and pumping him full of drugs.
Aggy rejects the attempts of her only true friend, R.C. (Lynn Collins), and the mysterious Dr. Sweet’s (Brian F. O'Byrne) attempts to “rescue” them from their destructive situation. He describes Peter as “a delusional paranoid with schizophrenic tendancies”.
Now closed off from the world, Aggy and Peter hole up in the motel room and wage war against the infestation.
The power of this story is in its ability to raise questions in the viewer’s mind. What is really going in with Aggy? Are the bugs and Peter’s conspiracy theories real or shared delusions that Aggy comes to accept as her sanity crumbles? Is it a case that it’s not really paranoia if (they) are really watching you? Are the titular bugs really insect or in fact a new form of surveillance? Are Aggy and Peter the subject of a cruel experiment? Could it simply be that Aggy and Peter, fuelled by cocaine, paranoia and irrational fears, are both mentally ill and they drag each other down into the abyss? Are Peter and Dr. Sweet real or just Aggy’s hallucination?
It’s a telling detail near the climax of the movie, at the moment when Jerry attempts to break into the motel room. From the inside we hear the thunderous roar of a helicopter, the room shakes violently, and powerful search lights shine in through the windows. However, outside the door, from Jerry’s perspective, there are no helicopters.
Madness breeds madness.

Plunkett & Macleane (1999):

Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle, as Will Plunkett and Captain James Macleane, who find their calling as highwaymen in the 18th century England.

With strong support from a great cast including Liv Tyler, Michael Gambon and Ken Stott.
Those looking for deep, historical drama will not find it here.

Instead, this is just a thoroughly enjoyable, laugh-a-minute, adventure.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

My favorite part, when Jonny Lee Miller brandishes his guns, still riding high on the thrill of their last robbery, and exalts:

“Still, I was fabulous, and it was a bloody good laugh!”

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Quatermass, by Nigel Kneale:

Back in 1979, I was a horror and science fiction hungry pre-teenager when I saw the serialized adaptation of this book on TV. The series (back in its day) was great. I haven’t seen it since and I can guess at just how dated it would be now on a second viewing. However, it stayed with me over the years and inspired me to read the source novel. This is a very different and absorbing “alien invasion” story in that we never see the aliens. Instead, as society crumbles, fuel and food shortages have driven the populations to desperation and violence, anarchy reigns on the urban streets in a nightmarish near-future, the young people around the planet have become like hippy, new-age wanderers. Calling themselves the Planet People, they are being hypnotically lured to various locations where they are “harvested” on mass, leaving only the old behind to face extinction. Are the Planet People, as they believe, being magically transported to a heavenly other-world, or is a malevolent alien race blasting the planet surface with a laser and slaughtering them? Professor Quatermass sets out in a race against time to save both his missing granddaughter and the rest of mankind from annihilation. You’ll never look at a stone circle structure such as Stonehenge or a hippy the same way again!

Skeleton Crew, by Stephen King:

Short story compilations are almost always hit-and-miss, but this well-written and enjoyable collection from Stephen King who, credit where it’s due, has mastered the short story along with the full-length novel, offers readers 22 tales to tantalize the imagination. Two of my favorites are included in this book: The Mist, which is long enough to be classed as a stand-alone novella, and The Raft, a gore-fest in which two young couples become prey to a hungry creature in a secluded lake that at first resembles an oil slick.
How many of these stories appeal depends wholly on the reader, but with tales ranging in depth, style and subject as these there is bound to be something within the pages for all fans of the genre to enjoy.

The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived ...

How much you are likely to enjoy this book largely depends on how you feel about the characters listed within. Whether you agree with the writers on just how influential the characters are is open to debate. Readers may well think of other characters not listed they wish had been included in the book.
With several books already written on real life influential people, it’s an interesting question to raise and debate as to why we should need fictional characters as role models at all, including how and why they become so celebrated and valued in modern pop culture.
It’s a light read, entertaining, enjoyable for the most part and humorous in places.
Ideal for taking along on a journey when there won’t be much time to read and short articles are preferable.
It has a good take on my favorite character: Batman. To quote directly from the text: “Giants still walk the earth”.

Schindler's List, by Thomas Keneally:

At first, Oskar Schindler seems an unlikely hero: egotistical, hedonistic and adulterous. As an industrialist, the outbreak of World War II appears to him as mostly an opportunity for commerce and financial gain by whatever means. He’s a member of the Nazi party, but only because it opens doors for him to make further contacts and exploit them.
In this we see the best qualities emerging from what at first seems a mercenary and selfish man whose primary motivation is money and profit.
This novel weaves fiction to tie together facts given from the testimonies of the Schindler juden (Schindler's Jews).
At first Schindler has but one aim: to make more money than any one man can spend in a lifetime. And, by ways of slave labor and profiteering, he succeeds. But witnessing first-hand the horror and atrocities of the SS, under the command of the murderous Amon Goeth, he is forced to search his conscience and he finds himself at a moral crossroads: he can take his fortune and go as far away from everything as he can get, or he can use his talents and assets to help others. In the midst of evil and aided by his factory manager and accountant, Itzhak Stern, Schindler sets on a mission: to save the Jewish employees in his factory.
Originally titled Schindler’s Ark, this historical novel is one of the most thorough and comprehensive retellings of a specific and profound event during the Holocaust, one of the darkest periods in mankind’s history.
Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 movie adaptation is a devastating experience.
Like the diary of Anne Frank and The Girl in the Red Coat, by Roma Ligocka, this is a book everyone should read at least once.
As Itzak Stern said: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Also recommended:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey:

R.P. McMurphy, an insubordinate, anti-authoritarian non-conformist makes the mistake of “acting” crazy to duck out of life on a penal work farm, believing he can sit out the remaining weeks of his sentence in the supposed ease of a mental asylum. His real problems begin when he is faced with Nurse Ratched, a smug and uncompromising matriarch who enjoys cutting men down to insecure children she can control. The entire story is told by first person narration, from the point of view of Chief Bromden, who sees authority as an all-powerful and ruthless combine. Bromden pretends that he is deaf and dumb in order to hide away from the world, content to simply be ignored by everyone around him. That is before the battle of wills between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched ensues and stirs up an atmosphere of rebellion among the other patients on the ward. Who is sane in this world? What issues does Nurse Ratched have that drive her to being a cruel, vindictive tyrant?
By turns hilarious, frightening and tragic, this is one of the greatest books ever written that shines a light on the concepts of sanity, freedom, dignity and the pressures of life and society on the individual.

The 1975 movie, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, is one of the best movie adaptations.
On a trivia note, Christian Slater, who also bears a striking resemblance to Jack Nicholson, played the role of McMurphy in theatres and received great reviews.

Lambs of Men, by Charles Dodd White:

Hiram Tobit is a complex and unsympathetic character: a Marine Sergeant, damaged by war, working as a District Recruiter for the Marine Corp, plagued by nightmares of war-time horrors, haunted by the shameful circumstances of his brother’s untimely death, his mother’s suicide, and unresolved conflict with his father.
Returning to his childhood home he finds that time has moved on, but old pain and resentments are still present. A crime rocks the community, forcing Hiram to reluctantly set out on horseback with his father to hunt down the perpetrator. Violence simmers below the surface all the way through.
This is a compelling, well-crafted mix of murder, manhunt and love story, in the style of a modern-day western, with a military backdrop, effectively set in the mountain ranges of North Carolina.
Lambs Of Men is a subtle story of war and the effect that it has on men.
A state of war can exist within families and communities, just as it does on the battlefield.

The River Runes, by Ken Lindsey:

Enter the fantasy world of Caithiir, a woodland kingdom inhabited by magicians and their apprentices as they work on the Runes, protectors of the magic that hold their world together. There are also hunting parties, gate keepers, faeries and their rulers. Learn about the clan wars, nomads, the River Room, the community of the Great Hall and the Third Chapel district.
Will swords and magic be enough to save the trees and their forest home?
Who will win the inevitable battle?
A neatly written and heart-warming family tale about love, the value of equality, the conflict between different cultures, reconciliation and new beginnings. It also highlights well the dangers of separatism and the importance of acceptance and tolerance in any society.
Go down for a trip through these woods and you may well be in for a big surprise.

I Shudder at Your Touch: Twenty-two Tales of Sex and Horror, edited by Michele B. Slung:

An eerie and erotic collection of 22 short stories, drawing on the themes of sex, death and insanity. One of the best in this anthology is Keeping House, by Michael Blumlein, describing a housewife’s mental breakdown as she loses her grip on reality and descends into violence and insanity. A mermaid, vampire, werewolf and more are within these pages. Dark, gothic, seductive, for adults only and not for the faint of heart.

God Hates Us All, by Hank Moody:

A fictional novel that has now become real thanks to the success of Showtime’s brilliantly wry TV comedy-drama series, Californication. For me, this show has come like a breath of fresh air after the multitude of lame, tame, politically correct, sanitized garbage they churn out every year. In the series, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, substance-abusing, hedonistic, Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny, wrote God Hates Us All. He laments at the movie studios churning it out as yet-another vacuous, soul-less, FUBAR rom-com entitled: A Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s easy to imagine Hank Moody as the narrator, recalling as fiction how he dropped out of college and into drug dealing, a decision that leads him floundering through a similar misadventure that might have befallen Hank Moody, particularly during his encounters with his drug-addicted and unstable ex-girlfriend. They yearn for a supposed nirvana modelling the self-destructive relationship of punk rock’s version of Romeo & Juliet: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen , making several references to the movie Sid & Nancy as it’s the only title they have in their collection to watch. The characters are fighting a losing battle as they struggle to remain in that care-free life-style, knowing deep down they’ll ultimately lose and be forced to conform and face growing old like everyone else. An unusual book to read as it’s been based on fiction within fiction. Nowhere near as funny or well-written as the series script, but still a fast and enjoyable read if you’re a fan of the show.

The Far Arena, by Richard Ben Sapir:

One of the best sci-fi/fantasy adventure novels that would make a great movie, especially after the success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but sadly (to the date I write this) The Far Arena has never been picked up for film.
An intriguing story about a Gladiator – the greatest in his time – exiled after defying the Emperor, enraging the mob and offending the gods of Rome. Cast naked over the ice with a sword and shield to fight the cold, he expects nothing but death. Instead, he is awakened centuries out of his time.

Discovered by accident by an oil drilling team, he is dug out of the ice, thawed out and brought back to life. This opens another intriguing strand of the story and a problem for the characters who are caring for him and hiding him from the world: what to do with him? And how can he come to terms with his predicament, the knowledge that his own world is long gone and everyone he knew and loved are dead and untraceable?
Brilliantly written and entertaining as the narrative jumps from the 20th century to ancient Rome.

Bigger Than Hitler: Better Than Christ, by Rik Mayall:

Rik Mayall's anarchic sense of humor has always appealed to me and I've been a fan of his work since first seeing him on TV in the early '80s, when he was acting as the character of "investigative report" Kevin Turvey.

This book is hilarious.
A laugh riot from start to finish.

Eleven Days, by Donald Harstad:

The author is a former sheriff and it shows in the writing.
I loved the dry, cynical wit that ran through the narrative and snappy dialogue.

You get a real sense of the cops going through the routine of their job as they uncover evidence, chase up leads and question witnesses/suspects.

The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum:

This is one story you will never forget. I include Jack Ketchum’s book and the 2007 movie adaptation here. Inspired by the true murder case of Sylvia Likens, sadistically tortured by her guardian, Gertrude Baniszewski, her sons and a group of the neighbourhood kids. Sylvia Likens finally died of brain swelling and shock, aged just 16, in 1965. It’s a heart-breaking read. Not a book to be enjoyed, but one that I hope provokes discussion on the root causes of bullying, “pack behavior” among people who target an individual for persecution, and the problem of psychopaths and sociopaths in society who act with no sense of conscience for the suffering they cause others. In this case, these factors ran to the extreme. There are no happy endings. No “white knight” saving the day. Only insanity, cruelty, tragedy and death.

Totally American, by Dan Smee & Shoba Sreenivasan:

Both authors give personal testimonies, recounting their separate lives, experiences of growing up, maturing into adults, lessons they’ve learned through life, their work, loss, achievements, and those they’ve come to know along with way. They offer an easy to read self-help guide to the rewards of developing and exercising morals, core values, a positive “can do” attitude, in order to obtain our life goals. Some of the themes covered are: achieving fulfilment and success, changing a negative attitude into a positive one, defeating fear, stress and other disparaging thoughts and emotions, tackling the “hard knocks” of life as and when they come, self-reflection on life from civilian, military, and philosophical perspectives.
In these difficult times, with so much despondency around us, it’s refreshing to read such an optimistic, constructive and inspirational guide.

The Sword and the Dragon (The Wardstone Trilogy), by M.R. Mathias:

Fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis will find much to enjoy to enjoy in M.R. Mathias’ debut fantasy novel, The Sword and the Dragon (Book 1 of a trilogy). Starting with a mountain-side harvest of hawk eggs, the reader is then taken on an epic adventure through the Mainland Kingdom, encountering on the trek clansmen, a Lion Lord, lizards, serpents, elves, witches, a giant called Borg, a giantess called Berda, a bald-headed wizard called Pael, monsters and magic, kings and queens, lords and ladies, and many others, along with a great mix of campfire legends, swords and sorcery, and exhilarating battles.
This is a big book on a grand scale. Don’t let the fact that it’s a long story put you off. It is also a fast read with a steady flow throughout. Read this book, take up your sword and get ready for a hugely enjoyably adventure.

Cacoethes, by M. Scott Craig:

This anthology of short stories and poetry, by author M. Scott Craig, pushes the medium with a fresh and innovative approach.
The title, by definition, means an irresistible compulsion to indulge in something, often to the point of mania, even to the point where it is detrimental.
The compositions range in theme from intense passion in the wilds of Africa, affirmation of identity, fantasies of what might and could be, proposal at a party, cosmic romance, the agony of longing, friendship, love and lust. Many read like soliloquies, others like love letters, with the overall emphasis in this collection on the joy, struggle and pain of life, love, passion and relationships.
The writing is stylized and refreshingly avant-garde. One section abandons the rules of conventional sentence, paragraph and punctuation structure and gives us an erotic story with the words joined, offering the reader an almost encrypted series amid the other pieces.
Like many of the best anthologies, this would make an excellent travel book for those who spend time every day commuting and love to read challenging and compulsive fiction.
A hugely enjoyable and unique collection of reflections on human emotions and the way passion and love can drive us irresistibly beyond the constraints of reason.

Wolves, by Candace Savage:

This is one that I read as part of character research for my new road thriller, Backlash.
It's a book you can read in a day with good information on these beautiful animals. Superb photographs included throughout.

Who Would Have Thought? by Trenice Carter:

Written with language as deliberate, raw and explicit as the steamy sex acts it describes, author Trenice Carter tells the story of three pleasure-seeking, financially successful and seemingly gifted in every way men, dubbed the ‘Men of Adonis’ by those who come to know them. They have been friends since their childhood and the bond they share is as strong as if they were blood relatives. They are brothers by choice, not through luck of genetics. We learn about their lives, loves, weaknesses, intrigues and the compelling bond of true friendship and unyielding allegiance where this trio share everything and stand by each other through any dangerous situation. Will the three friends survive as a group and continue a free and hedonistic play-boy lifestyle, or will one or all succumb and be tamed by the all-conquering love for the women in their lives?
Moving from Blaine, Minnesota, to the darkly seductive glitz and bright lights of Las Vegas, this is a steamily erotic thriller, combining lusty encounters with the drama of rocky relationships and intertwining lives.
An entertaining story with fast action, violence, and sub-plots that hold the reader’s interest.
True love wins over all.

Murder At The Luther, by Kathleen Kaska:

Confident and free-spirited redhead, Sydney Jean Lockhart, has shunned the entrapments of marriage and domesticity in order to maintain her independence and pursue her career as a reporter.
Attending the “Neptune Rising” themed Ball on New Year’s Eve, she finds herself evading the unwanted attentions of undesirable suitors, befriended by various socialites, and looking forward to a bird watching date with used car salesman, Sam Buckner.
In the midst of party revelers, champagne and dancing, a murder occurs and Sydney Lockhart is discovered standing over the victim with his blood on her hands.
Pursued by Police Chief Lynol Fogmore, a cigar-chewing bulldog of a man, hungry for a fast arrest and conviction, Sydney finds herself his number one suspect. In a race against time to prove her innocence, she sets out to solve the case and unmask the real murderer.
Kathleen Kaska’s book is a neatly written, fast-paced and entertaining thriller. Her central character, Sydney Lockhart, is a feisty, strong and believable heroine, embroiled in a charmingly nostalgic murder-mystery, reminiscent of the classic Agatha Christie style whodunits that would also transfer successfully to stage and screen.

Serranto's Redemption (Breaking Out Series, Book Two), by Carol Gambill:

This powerful sequel to Once Wild has Nick Serranto attending his beloved wife’s funeral under heavy police guard. Two years later, Nick is an emotionally burned-out, chain-smoking, hard-drinking shell of a man, working as an enforcer and hit-man for his vicious older brother, Cal.
The uneasy balance and fragile structure in the top echelons of this crime family are a time-bomb waiting to explode.
This story has a sharp narrative and biting dialogue between the amoral characters. Gangster crime thrillers are thick on the ground, but Carol Gambill’s Breaking Out Series are among the best of the new wave, a compelling study of how crime can become a way of life and the corrosive effect it has on loyalty, even loyalty to family, breeding paranoia.
Being exploited as little more than hired muscle and an exterminator, Nick Serranto leads a shadowy existence of rage, violence, intimidation, self-loathing and regret, evident in his dealings with criminals, corrupt cops and women he uses and discards.
How do you break from a particular way of life if it’s all that you know, especially when the peer pressure comes from your own family?
It’s easy to imagine Nick in his twilight years, much like the embittered character Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino in The Godfather Part 3, as he says: “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in!”
However, as Nick discovers, no matter how dark the present, the future always holds hope of love and redemption. Life is full of surprises, twists and turns, and our saviors can come from the mostly unlikely places.

Once Wild, by Carol Gambill:

The sins of Shaun MacGregor’s youth are far from forgotten when he is released from prison and returns to his home town in Ashland, Pennsylvania. We learn that he went wild in his youth for a reason: rebellion sparked by years of physical abuse. When he wasn’t being bullied by his father, he was being victimized by others. He’s already served eight years for killing his friend, but there are some in the town who still won’t forget – or forgive. Shaun is a marked man from the moment news is out that he’s back in town. When Maria Bellicia literally runs into him, their status couldn’t be more different, poles apart in the eyes of society. However, it’s a case of opposites attracting; they can’t help falling in love with each other. What follows is a steamy mix of guilt, passion, sex, hatred and violence. This is the first book in the Breaking Out series, and it’s a great read that reminded me of classic noir, steamy, pot-boiler thrillers like James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. I liked the setting and the characters. The pace is steady and the tension builds very well. I believed in Shaun’s struggle to find acceptance and redemption, along with Shaun and Maria’s struggle to stay together in the face of adversity. A love story with a hard edge.

Plain Jane, by Cristyn West:

Gritty and effective page-turner of a thriller with the serial killer being triggered by a “type”; in this case, the “plain Jane” brunettes of the title. I was hooked from chapter one, as the killer stalks a potential victim through the city at night, and they pass a crowd gathering outside a cinema showing a rerun of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the fans of the movie, dressed in-costume for the event, unaware of the real horror in their midst.
There is an added dynamic with the sub-plot of the romance between criminal profiler and his ex, Nicole, a cop working on the case with him. The characters are well written and the story speeds along nicely with chapters and narrative passages that come as swift and sharp as a punch. This is a nice mix of tough cop thriller, drama, love story, gory scenes of murder, that come together in a hard-hitting, intelligently written story, with a current of dark humor flowing throughout.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary, by Bob Balaban:

This is my second reading of this journal and it’s been a long time since the first. From 1982–84, as I finished up my last two years at school and looked forward to the day when I could get the hell out of there, a copy of this book was a permanent fixture on my English teacher’s desk. When I got through with the assignments, I would borrow it for 10–20 minutes and read some more. My teacher had no problem with me loaning the book for the duration but, much to my chagrin, he wouldn’t let me have the book for keeps. And so I read it in segments and only during quiet spells of his lessons. I don’t blame him for not giving up his copy because I wouldn’t have either, in his place. I saw the movie a year or two earlier and I loved it. I still do. Over the decades, I’ve sat through numerous repeat viewings and it’s lost none of its magic.
Author, Bob Balaban, played David Laughlin, map-maker and interpreter to Francois Truffaut’s character, the scientist and ufologist, Claude Lacombe.
His personal journal takes the reader behind the scenes with an insight into his own reservations about his ability to speak French well enough to fulfill his role. There are some witty observations, with others that are alarming: Melinda Dillon suffered an ankle injury and kept it hidden during numerous retakes – attempting not to hop as she ran up the base of Devil’s Tower, at the same time on consecutive days to maintain the continuity of lighting, the death threats made to Richard Dreyfuss, the extra who was almost torn in half by barbed wire during a stunt involving a car breaking through a fence and racing across a field.
Speaking as a life-long fan of the movie, and an incurable movie buff, this book was a pleasure to read.

It’s also a fun movie to introduce to people who are watching it for the first time. I make the room as dark as possible, turn up the volume, the music rises over the opening credits (white words against a black background), building to a loud crescendo … then comes a blast of sound with the screen simultaneously becoming bright, filling the room with light. I always grin with a joker’s sense of accomplishment as friends jump in their seats. I salute Steven Spielberg for his movie making genius and it makes me sad that I missed seeing this on the big cinema screen. What a way to start the movie!

Also recommended:

The Mothman Prophecies, by John A. Keel:

The book came my way after I saw the movie, starring Richard Gere. I’m including both versions in this review as I feel the movie’s the better of the two: a sharper and more focused retelling of the accounts leading up to and including the Silver Bridge tragedy on the Ohio River, between Gallipolis, Ohio, and Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in 1967.
How much readers believe of the mystery surrounding the Mothman encounters and sightings depends on how open-minded they are.
The book is a catalogue of various sightings and experiences of not only the Mothman, but also a wide variety of paranormal phenomena, including angels, demons, alien visitations, mutilated animals, accounts of UFO sightings, testimonies from witnesses, including several who have been approached by the “Men in Black” – among them the enigmatic and indefinable Indrid Cold. Several witness were afflicted by a strange conjunctivitis, having seen “something” and been exposed to an energy that left them injured. Many of the Mothman witnesses share a mindset in common: what they saw frightened them, they don’t feel privileged to have seen it and they hope they never see it again.
The fact that people witnessed and experienced this phenomenon can’t be repudiated; there are similar accounts from all over the world and at different times throughout history.
The movie is fabulously intense, eerie and atmospheric with excellent performances from all the actors. It’s a mesmerizing story about the blurring of our perception of the natural and supernatural world, where the “sensitive” among us may glimpse things not usually apparent to the majority. One explanation I like is that this phenomenon has been around us all the time and they are a form of natural energy.
In the end, a lot comes down to faith. Many are simply frightened by what they don’t understand, or what doesn’t fit into their view of what constitutes “normality”. It’s easy to be sceptical, particularly when knowledge often comes marred in sound-bites, information overload and disinformation, but we live in a big world, surrounded by a vast, infinite universe.
How much of that is still mystery?
We have a need to know. But maybe it’s as the character Alexander Leek in the movie, played by Alan Bates, points out: we’re not allowed to know!

A tribute to Sidney Lumet (June 25, 1924 – April 9, 2011):

Many of the movie thrillers I have come to enjoy over the years were directed by Sidney Lumet, who died from lymphoma at his home in Manhattan, New York, on April 9, 2011, aged 86. After serving in World War II, he created his own theatre workshop. Along with theatre and film, he was also successful as a TV director. Coincidentally, his first movie, 12 Angry Men (1957), was the first I saw. When I was kid, I spent many Friday and Saturday nights watching the late movies on TV. The drama in the story, adapted from a play, knocked me out as these 12 angry men argue the case, with 11 of them ready to condemn a man for a crime he’s innocent of. Henry Fonda plays the lone dissenter who eventually convinces them of his innocence.
Never shy to film a controversial story, hard-hitting dramas such as: The Hill (1965), an early role for Sean Connery surviving the tough boot-camp army regime.
Child’s Play (1972), a dark and surreal study of mind-control and savagery in a British boarding school.
The Offence (1972), another dark role for Sean Connery focussing on the effects police work can have on the mind, particularly when dealing with heinous crimes. These themes, along with those of corruption and dysfunctional family relationships became a driving factor.
Serpico (1973), a power-house role for Al Pacino as real-life cop, Frank Serpico, who refuses to buckle to peer-pressure, in a stand against corruption that almost cost him his life.
The Pawnbroker (1964), based on the novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, gave Rod Steiger one of the most powerful roles of his career as a Holocaust survivor haunted by his memories of the concentration camp and the pain of losing his family and wife, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975), another true story with Al Pacino again playing the main role of the homosexual bank robber, bungling a heist in a desperate attempt to fund his partner’s sex change operation.
Similar themes of a heist-gone-wrong and surveillance was explored again in:
The Anderson Tapes (1971), starring Sean Connery as a career criminal, leading his gang to rob an apartment block with disastrous results.
Network (1976), starred Peter Finch, William Holden, Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway in a scathing black comedy satire on the TV media manipulation.
Equus (1977), based on the Peter Schaffer play, starred Richard Burton in one of his best roles, as a middle-aged psychiatrist who questions the meaning and validity of his own life as he tried to unravel the mind of a disturbed patient who blinded six horses.
Other notable dark dramas followed covering similar themes:
Prince of the City (1981), Deathtrap (1982), The Verdict (1982), Q & A (1990), Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).
Lumet’s early film: Fail-Safe (1964) dealt with the end of the world through nuclear holocaust, triggered by man’s misplaced trust in technology, and was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s hilarious black comedy: Dr. Strangelove. Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963). It was successfully remade as:Fail Safe (2000), a one-off TV special starring a stellar cast of actors. Among them George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Richard Dreyfuss and Brian Dennehy.
Very much an independent director, Sidney Lumet’s work was unflinching in its depictions of a dark and volatile world, with individuals caught up in the sprawling cities, at war with bureaucracy and corruption, fighting for justice and truth.

The Choirboys, by Joseph Wambaugh:

In 1975, a police unit working the night watch in Los Angeles indulges in off-duty drunken hedonistic orgies. For them, the ‘choir practice’ sessions are a coping mechanism, a way to vent and let off steam to keep from exploding from the pressures of their job and the world around them. They work hard and play even harder, until caution is thrown to the wind one time too many, resulting in a tragedy that brings them all down.
These cops are not the ‘white nights in blue’ of so many clichéd TV shows. These are all-too human, with all the faults, weaknesses and character flaws they have to contend with as they fight both the criminals on the street and the bureaucratic hierarchy they work for and gripe about in private. This is one of the best police-themed novels in that it describes the effect police work has on the officers. Maybe once idealistic, these officers are now embittered and disillusioned and just struggle to make it through the day like everyone else.
Written by a seasoned former police officer, the characters and situations described throughout this novel have an authentic feel about them. By turns harrowing and hilarious, with characters you can both laugh with and loathe in equal measure, this remains one of the author’s best works.

Whose Life Is It Anyway?, by Brian Clark:

Central character, Ken Harrison, is a successful sculptor with a beautiful girlfriend. After seeing one of his own pieces erected as a public work of art, he is involved in a car wreck. He wakes up in hospital, to find himself paralyzed from the neck down.
As the months drag by, he becomes psychologically tortured. He is after all an intelligent and creative artist, whose passion and self-expression comes through working with his hands. Above all else, he lives to sculpt. Now that ability and freedom is gone forever. Finally, he decides that life isn’t worth living if he can’t live on his own terms – the way he wants.
Some of the nurses are sympathetic, while the inflexible doctor has a God-complex and sees death as an enemy to be beaten and life as survival no matter what. His own argument is that if someone has not reached their allotted three score years and ten – then they have no business dying!
Harrison, after thinking over his situation, the prospect of the years still to come, able to do nothing apart from being locked inside a paralyzed body, decides on a plan: to be released from the hospital so that he can be allowed to die.
He breaks off his relationship with his girlfriend and employs the services of an attorney to fight his case.
The doctor then fights back and attempts to have Harrison committed under the mental health act.
The movie version was released in 1981 and stars Richard Dreyfuss as Harrison, with Christine Lahti, John Cassavetes, Bob Balaban and Kenneth McMillan. It’s under-rated and has since been largely forgotten, but it deserves recognition as a topical re-release.
This could have been both depressing and maudlin, but the script is written with a dry wit to reflect Harrison’s intelligence, sense of humor and sensitivity.
A thought-provoking play on self-euthanasia.
As the title and argument states: whose life is it anyway?

The Onion Field, by Joseph Wambaugh:

This reads like a novel, but is in fact a true story. The tragedy of this account is that justice was never really served to the perpetrators.
It happened on a Saturday night shift, in Los Angeles, California, March 9, 1963. Two cops, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, during routine patrol, pull over two career criminals for what was a minor traffic violation.
The criminals: psychopath, Gregory Powell and his side-kick, Jimmy Smith, had a lot to be on edge about – they’d just pulled a robbery.
They kidnapped the cops and, held them both at gunpoint, and forced Campbell to drive them to an isolated, moonlit onion field.
Powell had his facts wrong about the state law on kidnapping. He mistakenly believed that all kidnapping cases, not only the ones where the hostages were killed, were classed as capital crimes.
Powell forced the two cops to stand side-by-side with their hands in the air and asked Campbell: “We told you we were going to let you go … but have you ever heard of the Little Lindbergh Law?”
When Campbell replied: “Yes.” Powell shot him dead.
Hettinger managed to scramble to safety, but in the weeks, months and years that followed, he suffered survivor’s guilt, which led to shop-lifting and a descent into alcoholism.
Powell didn’t just kill a police officer that night, the consequences of his crime led to the destruction of several others lives.
One of the stand-out elements of this account is the potential life-threatening risk that every police officer takes when they go out on duty. They put themselves on the line for the safety of others, which makes them, like those in the military and emergency services, the true heroes in this world.
The Onion Field is a stark, tragic example of crime and its ramifications, which will have readers enraged against the injustice of the system that allowed the perpetrators to play it for their own gain.
When a crime is committed, those who suffer longest are the victims who survivor the ordeal, and their families.
There is no such thing as victimless crime.

Reluctant Hero, by John Hickman:

Author, John Hickman, recalls memories of life with his father, Bill. Writing fact in the form of creative fiction, he merges testimonies from those who knew Bill, and gives the reader an affectionate biography of an ordinary man who triumphed during extraordinary times.
Beginning in Notting Hill, London, during the 1920s, and coming from a poor background, Bill first experienced and overcame intimidation from the local bullies. Suffering the brutality of gang violence, Bill’s first battle and victory came in 1936, when he took down and beat Alf, the gang leader, giving him the business end of a cricket bat and a much-needed taste of his own medicine. Bill walked away from that incident a more confident young man and spent his time dreaming of a better life, with aspirations of one day becoming a successful cricketer, as the dark clouds of the coming Second World War gathered and the Nazi war machine rumbled through Europe.
We follow Bill through three sections of his life: childhood and teens; the war years and Bill’s experience of the boot-camp regime of flying school, to the trials of the bombing missions, where he flew as a pilot of Lancaster Bombers, with the hardship and terrors endured throughout each run; and finally adjusting back to civilian life afterwards with his beloved Alice.
True life stories of war time – any war – are important for future generations to study and learn from. When dark times such as these are forgotten, therein prowls the danger that they can be repeated. An apt quote from George Orwell is included in the book: “we didn’t know how bad it was until they told us.”
Real heroes, reluctant or not, never die.
Their deeds are remembered and their lives and sacrifices are honored.

Black Shadows by Simon Swift:

Just when you might think: they don’t write ‘em like they used to … an author comes along with a true passion for classic rat-a-tat-tat, shoot ‘em full o’ holes, gumshoe crime fiction.
The prologue opens on October 23, 1935, in Newark, New Jersey, and grabs the reader’s attention right from the start.
Four men, operatives of The Shadow Man Detective Agency, sit around a table in a restaurant. Their work comes predominantly from the mob. The intended peace of their meal is shattered by a volley of gunfire. It’s a gangland hit, but the quartet are bystanders, not the targets, until one of the detectives returns fire and turns the hit into a free for all. In the moments of calm that follow the chaos, after seeing two of his colleagues killed, Errol Black decides to get out of that line of risky business and stick to good, honest, morally ambiguous P.I. work. However, his partner in sleuthing, Dyke Spanner, can’t resist the big bucks and stays with the mob, a decision which ends his association with Errol.
The story then jumps forward a decade to Manhattan. Errol now runs a new detective agency with another partner, Hermeez Wentz, but the business has fallen on hard times.
Errol is demoralized and the future looks bleak. Then a beautiful femme fatale walks into his office and provides him with a fresh and sordid case to work on.
Will her arrival bring prosperous good fortune, or is she there to make matters worse?
The case should have been easy money, but what starts off as a by-the-numbers surveillance job turns deadly.
Factual elements of the plot are skilfully weaved together with fiction to create an entertaining and wonderfully nostalgic detective story in the tradition of the hard-boiled noir classics.
When considering a career path in life, follow the advice of Arthur Flegenheimer in the prologue: “Steer clear of wise guys, they’ll kill you!”